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SCIENTOLOGY

,
SOCIAL SCIENCE AND
THE DEFINITION
OF RELIGION
James A. Beckford, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
University of Warwick
England

V

FREEDOM PUBLISHING

SCIENTOLOGY,
SOCIAL SCIENCE AND
THE DEFINITION
OF RELIGION
James A. Beckford, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
University of Warwick
England

V

FREEDOM PUBLISHING

FREEDOM PUBLISHING
6331 HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, SUITE 1200
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA 90028-6329
TEL: (213) 960-3500
FAX: (213) 960-3508/3509

TABLE OF
CONTENTS
I.

FUNCTIONALIST DEFINITIONS

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II.

SUBSTANTIVE DEFINITIONS

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III.

CONCLUSION

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Scientology,
Social Science
and the
Definition of
Religion

SCIENTOLOGY,
SOCIAL SCIENCE AND
THE DEFINITION
OF RELIGION
James A. Beckford, Ph.D
Professor of Sociology
University of Warwick
England
My remarks are addressed to the question of whether Scientology would be
defined as a religion according to the criteria conventionally used by social scientists specialising in the analysis of what they consider to be religious phenomena 1.
There is considerable diversity among the conceptualisations and definitions of
religion employed by social scientists. The choice of conceptualisation and definition reflects both a wide variety of underlying assumptions about the nature of
social reality and variations in the purpose of conceptualising or defining religion.
Given the generally instrumental (and distinct from appreciative or evaluative) character of social scientific understanding, it is not surprising that concepts and definitions are judged not in terms of their truth or falsity but, rather, in terms of their
relative usefulness. In particular, their differential capacity to set a given phenomenon clearly apart from other phenomena in such a way that the differences can be
shown to reveal significant facts about them is the main measure of the usefulness
of competing definitions and conceptualisations.
Definitions2 may vary, then, with the purposes in hand, but this does not mean
that there is total relativity or anarchy. There are two broad types of definitions of
religion in use among psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists: functionalist
and substantive. Within each type there are further sub-types. I shall argue that, on
the basis of personal contacts with Scientologists and scholarly study of

1. Professor Beckford wrote this paper in 1980.
2. For stylistic reasons I shall no longer mention “conceptualisation”, but it does constitute a
separable analytic process which usually precedes the process of defining phenomena.

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Scientology,
Social Science
and the
Definition of
Religion

Scientology’s teachings, practices, organisation and consequences for its followers’
lives, I believe that it can be more helpfully defined as a religion than as any other
kind of enterprise.

I. FUNCTIONALIST

DEFINITIONS

A functionalist definition is one which focuses attention on the contributions
allegedly made by the phenomenon in question to the stability and/or survival of a
social or cultural entity. Thus, phenomena can be shown to be functional for entities ranging from the individual person to the world-system. The fact that this manner of defining things raises many philosophical problems and has exercised the
minds of many logicians has not prevented it from achieving popularity among
social scientists — especially in connection with religion.
It may be said that religion has the functional capacity:
(a) at the personal level to help people overcome problems of personality
imbalance, self-identity, meaning in life, moral reasoning, etc.,
(b) at the communal level to integrate potentially rootless people into groups
and associations which provide direction and meaning in personal life as well as
helpful points of reference in large-scale societies where the individual may feel
vulnerable to an all-powerful bureaucracy or system, or
(c) at the societal level to provide legitimation for the prevailing social order;
compensation for felt deprivations; and moral regulation of the interrelationships
between major social institutions.
The basic teachings of Scientology on the spiritual nature of the thetan (spiritual being) and on the Eight Dynamics; the practical objectives of its training courses and counselling services; and the reverential, reflective tone of some Scientology
ceremonies all persuade me that, in common with other religions, Scientology may
be usefully described as functional at each of the above levels. This is not, of
course, to claim that only religions have these functions. It is merely to argue, first,
that Scientology does share them with other religions and, second, that its particular ways of fulfilling them are more closely akin in appearance and objectives to
those of commonsensically-defined religions than of, say, political groups or welfare agencies.
Defining religion in terms of function may be helpful in some cases of social scientific analysis: light can thereby be cast on many interesting aspects of its varied
contribution to social life. In view of the obvious difficulty of distinguishing in this
perspective between religion and ideologies, however, a functionalist definition
cannot go far towards emphasising religion’s distinctiveness. For this reason a substantive definition may be more useful.

II. SUBSTANTIVE
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DEFINITIONS

It is clear to me that Professor Parrinder, Professor Pocock and Canon Drury
have each suggested criteria by which a phenomenon might qualify as religious in
a substantive sense. By this I mean that various grounds are provided by them for

Scientology,
Social Science
and the
Definition of
Religion

restricting the application of the term “religion” to phenomena displaying definite
properties which do not occur together in other phenomena.
The strongest form of substantive definitions holds that religion has an essence
or essential nature which can be known for certain only by intuition and introspection. Thus, Rudolf Otto claimed that religion was a “ ... primal element of our
psychical nature that needs to be grasped purely in its uniqueness and cannot itself
be explained from anything else”. (The Idea of the Holy. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Books, 1950, p. 141.) In his opinion the uniqueness of religious experiences lay in
their radical differences from all other experiences: they were the experiences of the
“wholly other”. The elements of circularity and timelessness in this kind of reasoning are problematic and have deterred most social scientists from making use of
essentialist definitions. The attractions are, however, undeniable.
More frequently social scientists have been disposed to use “stipulative” definitions of religion. By this means they have stipulated that, for their purposes and
without claiming universal validity for their views, “religion” shall be identified by
reference to certain characteristics. For the anthropologist M. Spiro, e.g., religion is
“an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings. (“Religion: problems of definition and explanation” in M.
Banton ed. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock,
1966, p. 96.) Not all social scientists insist, however, on the reference to “superhuman beings”. P. Worsley, another anthropologist, finds it more useful to define religion as a “dimension beyond the empirical-technical realm”. (The Trumpet Shall
Sound. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957, p. 311.) This preference for a substantive,
but fairly inclusive, definition is shared by many sociologists. The well-known and
authoritative definition by R. Robertson, e.g., stipulates that,
Religious culture is that set of beliefs and symbols ... pertaining to a
distinction between an empirical and a super-empirical, transcendent
reality: the affairs of the empirical being subordinated in significance
to the non-empirical. Second, we define religious action simply as:
action shaped by an acknowledgement of the empirical/super-empirical distinction. (The Sociological Interpretation of Religion. Oxford:
Blackwell, 1970, p.47.)
No good purpose would be served by adding further examples of stipulative substantive definitions, since the quoted examples are representative of the common
ways in which religion is defined for the purpose of social scientific analysis.
Using the definitional criteria implicit in Spiro’s, Worsley’s and Robertson’s definitions, there can be no doubt that Scientology qualifies for the purposes of social
scientific analysis as a religion. Its underlying philosophy of man assumes that the
person is composed of both a material body and a non-material spirit which enjoys
immortal life in a non-empirical realm. Belief in the reality of thetans is a logical
prerequisite for subscription to Scientology’s rituals, courses of practical training,
counselling services and programmes of social reform. There would be no cogent
justification for Scientology’s particular forms of religion in the absence of belief in

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Scientology,
Social Science
and the
Definition of
Religion

the existence and the superiority of a non-empirical, transcendent reality. Indeed,
in the view of the author of the most authoritative sociological analysis of
Scientology the movement’s founder and leader became progressively more oriented towards questions about the origins of the thetan, knowledge of past lives
and “the supernatural abilities that the individual can acquire through the practice
of Scientology”. (R. Wallis, The Road to Total Freedom. London: Heinemann,
1976, p. 124.)
The actions of a committed Scientologist would be shaped and guided by the
empirical/super-empirical distinction. Professor Parrinder has demonstrated effectively how the rituals of Scientology embody an element of worship and veneration which is consonant with the underlying teachings about non-empirical reality
and Professor Pocock has emphasised the clear parallels between Scientology and
the Great Traditions of the Hindu and Buddhist religions in respect of their similar
understanding of the immanent relationship between Gods or spirits and mankind.

III. CONCLUSION
My conclusion is that Scientology, whilst clearly differing from the majority of
Christian churches, denominations and sects in beliefs, practices and organisational structures, nevertheless satisfies the criteria conventionally applied by social scientists in distinguishing between religion and non-religion.
The fact that the material basis for the religion of Scientology is organised in a
business-like manner can have no implications for its status as a religion. Does a
work of art cease to be a work of art when it is efficiently produced for sale or
exchange? It is naive to think that any new religious movement could survive in the
modern world without a business-like material basis for its operations, and as
Canon Drury has pointed out, even the ancient Christian churches are nowadays
not averse from engaging in business affairs in order to sustain or promote their
services to actual and potential members. Lacking the benefits of inherited
property-wealth, endowments, patronage and a “birth right” membership, new religious movements must either act in a business-like manner or perish.
James A. Beckford
December 1980

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When Professor Beckford wrote “Scientology, Social Science and the Definition of Religion”
in 1980, he was Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Durham. He is currently
Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

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